Despite an avowed aversion to anything coming from the federal government, Utah legislators seemed eager this past week to consider adopting the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation that states reduce their drunk-driving blood-alcohol thresholds.
Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who is the Utah Legislature's leader in setting state liquor policy, said he and his colleagues will closely consider the NTSB's support for prohibiting driving with a blood-alcohol concentration above 0.05 more than a third lower than the current standard of 0.08.
However, although any policy that further demonizes alcohol consumption is likely to find favor among Utah's conservative, mostly Mormon, legislators, it would be a mistake for them to believe that simply putting more drivers into the illegal category would reduce the carnage on highways caused by drunken driving.
Better enforcement of existing drunk driving laws and stiffer penalties for first-time offenders would have a greater deterrent effect. All too often the trouble is with lenient sentences and crowded jails, not too few DUI arrests.
Valentine pointed to European nations that have seen fatalities decline after prohibiting driving with a blood-alcohol concentration above 0.05 more than a third lower than the U.S. standard of 0.08. But many European nations also enforce stringent penalties, including jail time and confiscation of the drinker's car, even on the first offense. Europeans are more serious about stopping anyone who has consumed any alcohol from driving, and that has created a culture that does not tolerate such behavior.
In its announcement of the new recommendation, the NTSB said people with a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 percent are 38 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than those who have not been drinking. People with a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.08 percent are 169 percent more likely.
All 50 states adopted the current 0.08 percent level faced with a 2000 law that withheld highway construction money from states that did not.
Utah legislators should adopt a lower standard, but not based only on their inherent distrust of alcohol consumption. Their policy to keep alcohol out of sight at restaurants not where underage or heavy drinkers get their booze demonstrates this illogical thinking.
A more responsible approach would focus on habitual drunk drivers, those who pose the real danger. Penalties should be tougher for a first offense, swift and unrelenting for a second.